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Summer 2003

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Beyond fandango

Ballet Hispanico, recognized worldwide as the foremost dance interpreter of Hispanic culture in the United States, was in residence at Skidmore for the month of June. Besides teaching workshops, the dancers offered public classes in merengue, salsa, and flamenco; lecture-demonstrations; and an open rehearsal of Nightclub, a work developed during the company’s stay on campus. They also gave a stunning performance in Albany, drawing cheers and a standing ovation from an audience wowed by the group’s agility and impassioned style.
From Ritmo y Ruido by Ann Reinking
     Whether individually or in groups, the dancers’ explosive split-jumps, scissor kicks, acrobatic leaps, and ultra-high lifts give the impression of human fireworks. Yet they move with a rubber-like grace—precise, but never stiff as they glissade, linger midair, and spin and sweep into something like ice dancers’ death spirals.
     There’s no denying that the dazzle factor is huge. As artistic director Tina Ramirez once told the Los Angeles Times, “I like dramatic works because that is the way I see dance.” But there is more to Ballet Hispanico than high-energy output. Dance Teacher magazine noted, “For Ramirez, dance is not only an art form but a source of self-esteem, cultural awareness, and social mobility.” Growing up, Ramirez saw Latin American culture represented by “exuberant, flashy, cultural icons,” like toreadors and Spanish dancers. But one of her goals in establishing Ballet Hispanico was to move beyond cultural stereotypes and demonstrate the diversity of Hispanic culture.
     Her personal experience, she says, laid the foundation for her dance company. Born in a hotel in Venezuela—in “true theatrical tradition”—Ramirez was the daughter of a Puerto Rican schoolteacher and a Mexican matador. She came to the United States as a child and studied with New York City’s grande dame of Spanish dance, Lola Bravo. In the mid-1960s, at Bravo’s request, Ramirez took over her teaching school. But at the time no dance company was doing contemporary work that reflected Hispanic culture, Ramirez says, and she wanted youngsters “to know the beauty and value of their own culture.” In 1970 she formally began Ballet Hispanico, developing a rich and varied repertoire of commissioned works from acclaimed choreographers including Ann Reinking (Chicago), George Faison (The Wiz), and Ramón Oller.
     In addition to performing, Ballet Hispanico works with public schools through its arts education program, Primeros Pasos (First Steps). And the Ballet Hispanico School, whose alumni include film stars Jennifer Lopez and Leelee Sobieski, offers hundreds of inner-city students a unique curriculum of classical ballet, modern, and Spanish dance techniques.
     While Ballet Hispanico’s repertoire has its roots in formal ballet structure, absent are the stereotypical “bun heads” and pointe shoes. “I don’t have a Swan Lake or a Nutcracker,” says Ramirez. The settings are grittier—late night in a smoky Havana club in the 1950s, where “people are intoxicated by seductive hips and undulating torsos,” or a brothel in Buenos Aires between the World Wars—and the music ranges from pulsing hip-hop and sultry Afro-Cuban rhythms to flamenco guitar and Tex-Mex disco.
     The Boston Globe dubbed the ensemble “a sort of Latino counterpart to Alvin Ailey: a group that draws on and celebrates an ethnic tradition, but is not limited by it.” And the LA Times called the group “the antidote for anyone who thinks Spanish dance is all clacking castanets and combustible cha-cha-chas.”
     “Above all else,” Ramirez claims, “Ballet Hispanico celebrates the power of dance to unite people everywhere through joy, emotion, and passion in everything we do.” —MTS


© 2003 Skidmore College